Country House Rescue: Pen-Y-Lan, Wales

Pen-Y-Lan, Wales (Image: Channel 4)
Pen-Y-Lan, Wales (Image: Channel 4)

This week’s episode of Country House Rescue seems to have found one of the most anonymous houses I have come across, with so little information available about it. Perhaps, however, this is indicative of the rather quiet existence so many smaller country houses do enjoy.  Yet, as Ruth Watson discovers (as she has in so many inherited houses), quiet enjoyment and a commitment to a house and the estate by the owner does not translate into being able to look after it.

Pen-Y-Lan is situated at the head of a bucolic valley, in the centre of its 500-acre estate, which straddles the English/Welsh border – indeed Cheshire Shropshire is at the bottom of the hill and across the river.  The house was originally built in 1690 by one of the founders of Lloyds bank, though as Quakers they suffered extreme persecution in Wales and moved to Birmingham in 1689, so I suspect the house was more a rural retreat or symbolic connection as the family’s main homes were in and around Birmingham.  The house was then sold to the Holloway family in 1849, where it has been passed down through the generations to the current owner, Emma Holloway.

The grade-II listed house is in the regionally popular Regency gothic style – essentially a five by four bay house which was re-modelled in 1830 to add crenellations, hood moulds over the windows, decorative turrets, and an imposing entrance.  We have already looked at the particularly strong Welsh Regency gothic tradition in a previous post about Kentchurch Court, which although in Herefordshire, was very much a part of that movement.  In fact, in some ways, King Edward I could be said to have been one of the strongest architectural influences in the Wales. It was his chain of 17 mighty castles which stretched across the country ensured continuing conflicts necessitating defensible houses which filtered out in later years in the architectural vocabulary of the Picturesque movement which drew heavily on castle features such as crenellations, arrow slits, turrets, towers and battlements.

The difficulties in controlling the Welsh were first experienced by the Romans who also were forced to built extensive fortifications and, in fact, established the pattern of requiring large garrisons to defend themselves and the settlers.  The later autonomy granted to the very powerful Marcher lords, who were given the task of securing peace through marriage, trade or force of arms, ensured that the language of building in Wales was mostly either defensive or small-scale.  To help prevent any local challenges to the King’s authority the Marcher lords were mainly English (comprising the Earls of Chester, Gloucester, Hereford, Pembroke and Shrewsbury) whose estates were very much centred around their English seats and the court in London – even if the wealth generated made them some of the richest families in the country.

Penrhyn Castle, Wales (Image: NTPL/Geoff Morgan)
Penrhyn Castle, Wales (Image: NTPL/Geoff Morgan)

One notable feature of Wales is how few large estates there were.  Considering the size and wealth of the nation, the fact that it was mostly ruled through local clans (where not owned more directly by the Marcher lords) meant that their wealth would limit them to building fine, but smaller, manor houses (for example Gwydir Castle – there is also a superb account of its restoration: ‘ Castles in the Air‘).  This has meant that there are few ‘stately homes’ in the same sense that there are in England. A survey in Country Life magazine in the mid-1960s suggested that of the 200 estates examined, only about 20 would be regarded as ‘stately homes’.  However, within those 20 are such notable houses as Chirk Castle (now National Trust), Erddig (National Trust), Gwrych Castle (now a ruin), Hawarden Castle (still Gladstone family home), Penrhyn Castle (National Trust), Powis Castle (National Trust), Plas Newydd (National Trust), Vaynol (privately owned) and Wynnstay (now flats) – all in north Wales. In the south, the main seats were Dynevor Castle (National Trust), Fonmon Castle (still Boothby family home), Golden Grove (empty), Penllyn Castle (unknown!), Penrice Castle (private home), Stackpole Court (demolished 1963) and Tredegar Court (council owned).  Sadly, as shown in Thomas Lloyd’s ‘Lost Houses of Wales‘, over 350 Welsh country houses were demolished, mainly in the latter half of the 20th-century, as poor finances combined with blinkered Socialism meant that many were lost with little protest.

This means that the smaller Welsh country houses of minor gentry, tucked away in the rolling valleys, should be treasured all the more.  Sadly, as in the case of Pen-Y-Lan, when faced with an owner who had to take out a £300,000 loan for urgent repairs when she inherited in 2007, yet, as she admits “I have absolutely zero business acumen, whatsoever“, creates significant challenges.  Pen-Y-Lan is in a state of considerable disrepair which will require something of a miracle if the owner, Emma Holloway, is to overcome her lack of business skills to pay off the debt, restore the house, and preserve it to hopefully hand it on to the next generation.

Country House Rescue: ‘Pen-Y-Lan‘ [Channel 4]

Official website: ‘Pen-Y-Lan‘ or follow them on Facebook

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes


Before you comment…

This particular episode of Country House Rescue was one of the most controversial and provoked much reaction when broadcast and every time it is repeated – some are in sympathy and many not.  This is one family doing what they thought was best and perhaps the editing of the show was designed to present a particular angle.  Either way, the purpose of the comments on this blog are to contribute useful information, particularly anything related to architecture, and so I won’t permit comments I think are intemperate/abusive.  Thank you for your understanding.


31 thoughts on “Country House Rescue: Pen-Y-Lan, Wales

  1. Ryan April 25, 2011 / 11:52

    Never with an episode of Country House Rescue have I felt so torn. In one way I applaud Ruth for being able to keep her patience with a family, who, despite inviting the programme to their home, had no intention of making any significant changes. However, I do also empathise with the families who find it difficult to invite the public into their family home. After all, some, including Ruth at times seem to forget that the families have such a deep emotional attachment. Attempting to remedy this was obviously Ruth’s aim, but as usual, she suffers from the narrow-mindedness she has inherited from her own experience in the hotel industry. If Emma can make her own alternative plan for artist workshop days pay for her debts (and upkeep), good for her.

  2. Lee Lawrence April 26, 2011 / 16:25

    I enjoyed your post about Country House Rescue: Pen-Y-Lan, but the welsh border in that area is actually with Shropshire. Cheshire is further to the north and east.

    • countryhouses April 26, 2011 / 21:14

      Thanks Lee – have now corrected it.

  3. Paul S April 26, 2011 / 22:29

    There are a fair few more stately homes in North Wales than were listed.
    I was brought up in the estate manager’s house of Plas Glynllifon just south of Caernarfon –
    Bodorgan Hall – part of the large Bodorgan estate on Anglesey – seat of the Tapps-Gervis-Meyrick Baronets is still still a very private home. No references to the estate or the Hall can be found on the web
    FInally, and although smaller than Glynllifon & Bodorgan. THe home of Sir WIlliam Clough-Ellis Plas Brondanw near Porthmadog is also a fabulous historical and architectural gem –

    • countryhouses April 27, 2011 / 20:01

      Thanks Paul – I would certainly have included those two if I had been aware of them. Part of the challenge of this post is that there are actually relatively few books on Welsh country houses – which seems a remarkable oversight really. Perhaps if any publishers are reading they might like to commission someone local (who can get to grips with the Welsh spelling!) to produce a comprehensive study as I’m sure many would be interested.

      Sadly, at the moment, the main book is Thomas Lloyd’s very rare and expensive ‘Lost Houses of Wales’ which I would dearly love to find cheaply priced in the back of bookshop somewhere or the more recent book by Simon Jenkins ‘Wales’ Churches, Houses, and Castles’ which is very good as an overview as it also has a brief history of the country.

      Thanks again for your interest.


  4. ldm April 27, 2011 / 13:21

    Paul S, thanks for mentioning those homes. Plas Glynllifon, which I had not heard of, is quite lovely.
    PS I was able to find a photo of Bodorgan Hall:

  5. ldm April 27, 2011 / 13:25

    The Tapps-Gervis-Meyrick family’s other home is Hinton Admiral:
    Quite remarkable that the family has been able to keep both its homes and to do so without opening them to the public.

    • countryhouses April 27, 2011 / 20:34

      Dear ldm – this is what I love about the comments; to be pointed towards such an unknown and beautiful house as Hinton Admiral. It’s wonderful that it has remained in the family and shows that it can be done. Annonyingly though, the house also doesn’t appear in any of my books so again, somewhere to be discovered.



  6. Sarah April 27, 2011 / 20:15

    Dear Country House Viewers,

    I have read some of these comments and felt should write something:

    Most importantly thank you so much for all of you good natured individuals who have shown support for the family. I don’t think you truly comprehend how much it means to them.

    To others, bless you for taking such a profound interest to make such heated comments, thus you may wish to know a few things: Emma did not want to go on the program and was incredibly nervous having people in her home with cameras, explaining but not excusing how she may have come across. Desperate to save this amazing house her children put her on the program and are more than willing to help- you evidently have absolutely no idea should how much they are doing against constraints of who the land is rented to, what in the house is in a condition that can be used, their own full time careers and persuading a nervous, proud mother to let people into her home.

    A loving and proud mother who is having to accept on national television how much she has lost through her divorce. Frustrating yes!!! I know what I would do with that place!!!- but we are not Emma. Emma, who during filming found it difficult coming to terms with strangers at her home. Emma, who lives for life not wealth- a rare and gracious characteristic. How many very well off people have you come across who are in fact exceptionally unhappy?

    Though one thing I can assure you is finally off camera book yourself onto an Art Weekend that the children have organised or hold your wedding at Pen – Y –Lan and you will be received by the most loving family offering you a fantastic day, desperate to save their home.

    Best wishes Sarah,

    • James August 9, 2011 / 22:49

      What a great response Sarah. I watched the episode a couple of times and having read your message can see see the position Emma was in. Its not an easy thing opening your home to the public, and when needs must you think it will be fine, but then it’s not so easy afterall. What a smashing home and I wish her all the best and hope that she keeps the house within the family. It looks like the family are doing something now to keep the house going and organising and hosting events! Good for them. All the best Emma.

  7. Cynthia July 8, 2011 / 11:26

    I have viewed the Country House Rescue before, and thought Ruth Watson extremely patient and never giving vent to any fury, (which I felt for her rejected ideas) Ruth did however not give up on the family and Emma had to go through a very difficult learning process to acheive what she did, using her courage and skills. I think that as horses are used on the estate anyway, there should not be too many difficulties with permission and insurance to letting people ride, in a small way, in order to obtain more monet to keep the estate intact. When one engages with more people coming in, one’s confidence would ride up and overcome certain perceived difficulties over time. Emma’s courage and determination and her love of her home and her gradual realisation of what more can be done to earn the money, so that the house can survive with it’s original family in place is terribly important. I pray that this will happen, and that she keeps in touch with Ruth Watson. Ruth is certainly not narrow minded. She truely knows what to to, has masses of workable ideas which would certainly be successful. Let us be in no doubt about that! She is a true professional and reveals the unpleasant truth in order to solve huge problems. Thank you Ruth Watson. Thank you too, brave Emma for doing something extremely difficult. The only way forward is to admit to the painful truths, have the courage and determination and give alot of stamina to change parts of one’s existence so that things can improve.

  8. Gaye Nott July 30, 2011 / 04:17

    I have just seen the episode and was wondering about the outcome but from what I can see from the Pen-Y-Lan website, Emma is still there and I assume going strong or at least hanging in there. From the list of activities it would seem that she is doing many things -something must have clicked.

  9. Jenny George August 1, 2011 / 14:10

    What about Emma converting the chapel into a warm home for her and the children, and vacating the Big House, and get that restored and furnished as a B & B.
    Get an engineer or builder to inspect the Big House and get some waterproofing done on the roof for a start??

    • Grace May 11, 2014 / 18:35

      The “Chapel” is a much used church, Many people get married/christened/buried there so though a nice suggestion it wouldn’t be possible.

  10. Harry May 27, 2012 / 21:40

    Does anyone remember the Country House Revealed programme with Dan Cruikshank? That was a spectacular piece of television and I can’t help but feel that Country House Rescue just does not do it for me, at least it is not as bad as the ghastly Beeny’s Restoration Nightmare, that was well and truly appalling!

  11. Jill Stirling August 1, 2012 / 09:46

    What an interesting program. Think these people really did want a magic wand. I guess you have to let people muddle along in their own way. Not a good long term prognosis, I think.

  12. Phil August 1, 2012 / 12:02

    Viewed the programme tonight from here in Melbourne, Aust. and being of fairly recent British domicile I greatly enjoyed it. I guess there just had to be unstated reasons why the proposed country horse-rides, stabling and overnight house-usage idea was resisted by Emma.
    Amazing that that idea was not adopted, as the family clearly needs a strong and enduring cash-flow to be able to retain the house at all, AND obtain further loans for the large capital-works it needs.
    The younger adults seemed unaware of the URGENCY of making the place pay, and I fear that the family will lose it due to the financial pressure, as none seemed to be entrepreneurs, at least for that task.

  13. myviridian August 1, 2012 / 13:19

    Ruth Watson is patience personified. They should never have gone on the programme, just done things their own way which they now seem to be doing. So, good luck to the family, and please don ‘t bag Ruth… she was trying to help for heaven’s sake!

  14. patricia August 2, 2012 / 00:43

    I would hate to see this family lose their home, Emma must be admired for going on TV and revealing to all the financial pressure she is under. A suggestion to raise income could be having an afternoon tea picnic dressed in character, croquet lessons on the lawn and anything else that could be held outdoors.
    Also congratulations to Ruth who held it together, I would have lost my temper I’m afraid, especially with the adult children.

  15. Judi Simmons August 2, 2012 / 06:40

    I agree with ‘myviridian’, Ruth’s efforts were all designed to take advantage of the existing facilities, to minimise financial outlay and maximise financial gain. In past shows Ruth has turned some reluctant and truculent Country House owners, often with huge misgivings about Ruth’s ideas, into successes. It takes hard work and co-operation which, on camera, was lacking in spades. Let’s hope they can find the grace to work together to save the house which, if they think about may also save their family.

  16. Pamela Sonogan August 3, 2012 / 13:25

    I am living in Australia and am a great fan of the show >I would love to know if the family of Pen Y Lan have been able to keep it.MY husband and I look foeward to watching more programes.
    Pamela Sonogan

    • patricia August 4, 2012 / 21:08

      Hi Pamela, I am in Australia too, I looked up Pen Y Lan on the web and they were advertizing for weddings, art days so I am assuming it is still with the family.

  17. Jill Stirling September 13, 2013 / 10:02

    Just watched the Pen y Lan program. How patient Ruth was and how difficult the family made the show. I suppose it takes all sorts. Just saw the website. Very bland. So I suppose the family are muddling along. Seems a pity not to take full advantage of the wonderful location. Surely they are custodians of this lovely property for the nation. I guess it is case of reaping what you sew. Keen to know the outcome in the long term.

  18. Jan Leversha September 15, 2013 / 09:57

    This has just aired in Melbourne as the final in the series. Big pity, the houses visited are absolutely magnificent and it is wonderful to see how people must turn their minds to make an income to save them. I admire Ruth Watson for her business acumen and professionalism. Huge bouquets to her for being so calm and dignified under very trying circumstances. True, it must have been very difficult for Emma to have cameras and people in her home, however, she could have said no before they started. Her continuance implied at least agreement. I do however sincerely hope they succeed in making an income to repair the house.

  19. cass & brian mchaffie August 30, 2014 / 10:30

    This week we viewed the show here in New South Wales in Australia. Loved it and only wish it was a B& B. Fifty years here in Australia and still miss the lovely countryside in U.K.
    Wish the family all the best of Luck with keeping the house and thank Ruth Watson for the great way she presents the programme and her honesty.
    Do hope we hear that one day Emma has achieved what she wishes .
    .Cass & Brian McHaffie

  20. Ddiane November 1, 2015 / 07:58

    Can anyone please tell me if Emma had to end up selling PEN-Y-LAN HOUSE? I just watched the Vountry House Rescue episode in my home town AUSTRALIA OCTOBER 2015 and wanted yo know HOW Emma managed to SAVE the mansion. THANKYOU!

  21. Diana Baur January 6, 2016 / 19:21

    I was in the programme (Diana Baur one of the artists) and recently met Jenny Dodd again at Chester Art Fair. She said that Emma was still there and they had not sold the place.

  22. Michael Flynn December 10, 2019 / 18:07

    My late father was a gamekeeper on the Penylan estate in the 1960’s and 70’s and although older I grew up with Emma. Both of my sisters went to school with her. The house and estate come from a different time and it is far too large to be remotely described as comfortable. Her late father, Peter Ormrod ,demolished around 40% of it in the 1950’s. It requires a substantial income to maintain these houses and very few of the descendants can ever escape the inevitable day when they have to sell up. The history of the Ormrod family makes interesting reading. Their wealth came from Lancashire cotton mills which declined and disappeared in the 20th century.

    The house commands a spectacular view across the Dee Valley to Shropshire.

    It would be a shame if it was ever divided up in to apartments.

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